The following excerpts are from the chapter A Revolution Not Made, but Prevented in Kirk’s book Rights & Duties: Reflections on Our Conservative Constitution. Our excerpter, Darrin Moore, suggests—like a sommelier—that the reader might find The Beatles counter-revolutionary tune Revolution a perfect pairing to this article if one hopes for Kirk’s ideas to “ferment in the mind.” One can listen to that counter-revolutionary song here. Moore was spurred to compile this collection of excerpts to further clarify Kirk’s definition of the term revolution when challenged by a comment on the essay previously published (Russell Kirk On the American and French Revolutions) here.
We need first to examine definitions of that ambiguous word revolution. The signification of the word was altered greatly by the catastrophic events of the French Revolution, commencing only two years after the Constitutional Convention of the United States. Before the French explosion of 1789 and 1790, revolution commonly was employed to describe a round of periodic or recurrent changes or events—that is, the process of coming full cycle, or the act of rolling back or moving back, a return to a point previously occupied.
Not until the French radicals utterly overturned the old political and social order in their country did the word revolution acquire its present general meaning of a truly radical change in the social and governmental institutions, a tremendous convulsion in society, producing huge alterations that might never be undone. When the eighteenth-century Whigs praised the Revolution of 1688, which established their party’s domination, they did not mean that William and Mary, the Act of Settlement, and the Bill of Rights had produced a radically new English political and social order. On the contrary, they argued that the English Revolution had restored tried and true constitutional practices, preservative of immemorial ways. It was James II, they contended, who had been perverting the English constitution. His overthrow had been a return to the old constitutional order. The Revolution of 1688, in short, had been a healthy reaction, not a bold innovation.
But what of the events in North America from 1775 to 1781? Was the War of Independence no revolution?
That war, with the events immediately preceding and following it, constituted a series of movements that produced separation from Britain and the establishment of a different political order in most of British North America. Yet the Republic of the United States was an order new in only some aspects, founded upon a century and a half of colonial experience and upon institutions, customs, and beliefs mainly of British origin. The American Revolution did not result promptly in the creation of a new social order, nor did the leaders in that series of movements intend that the new nation should break with the conventions, the moral convictions, and the major institutions (except the monarchy) out of which America had arisen. As John C. Calhoun expressed this three-quarters of a century later, “The revolution, as it is called, produced no other changes than those which were necessarily caused by the declaration of independence.”
. . . . By 1790, Burke and the Old Whigs were already involved in difficulty by this troublous word revolution. For the same word was coming to signify two very different phenomena. On the one hand, it meant a healthy return to old ways; on the other hand, it meant, with reference to what was happening in France, a violent destruction of the old order. The English Revolution and the French Revolution were contrary impulses—although for a brief while, with the summoning of the long dormant Three Estates, it had appeared that the French movement might be in part a turning back to old political ways as well.
. . . In short, Whig revolution meant recovery of what was being lost; Jacobin revolution meant destruction of the fabric of society. The confounding of those two quite inconsonant interpretations of the word revolution troubles us still.
. . . If one assumes that the world revolution signifies always the same phenomenon, regardless of historical background, one may make miscalculations with grave consequences—perhaps fatal consequences.
The American Revolution, or War of Independence, was a preventative movement, intended to preserve an old constitutional structure. Its limited objectives attained, order was restored.
. . . The French Revolution was a very different phenomenon, as was its successor the Russian Revolution. These were philosophical revolutions—or, as we say nowadays with greater precision, ideological revolutions. Their objectives were unlimited in the sense of being utopian. Their consequences were quite the contrary of what their original authors had hoped for.
A considerable element of the population of these United States has tended to fancy, almost from the inception of the Republic, that all revolutions everywhere somehow are emulatory of the American War of Independence and ought to lead to similar democratic institutions. Revolutionary ideologues in many lands have played successfully enough upon this American naïveté. This widespread American illusion, or confusion about the word revolution, has led not merely to sentimentality in policy regarding virulent Marxist or nationalistic movements in their early stages, but also to unfounded expectations that by some magic, overnight “democratic reforms”—free elections especially—can suffice to restrain what Burke called “an armed doctrine.”
. . . [In] our age . . . the crying need is to avert revolutions, not to multiply them. Twentieth-century revolutions have reduced half the world to servitude of body and mind, and to extreme poverty. What we call the American Revolution had fortunate consequences because, in some sense, it was a revolution not made but prevented. Folks who fancy the phrase “permanent revolution” are advocating, if unwittingly, permanent misery. The first step toward recovery from this confusion is to apprehend that the word revolution has a variety of meanings, that not all revolutions are cut from the same cloth, that politics cannot be divorced from history, and that revolution, in its common twentieth century signification, is no highroad to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The Constitution’s Framers, in 1787, wanted no more revolutions; and President Washington, in 1789 and after, set his face against the French revolutionaries.
John Trumbull’s 1786 painting The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker’s Hill, June 17, 1775 is the painting atop this article.